DA: Publisher's arrest not result of public records request
The arrest of a Fannin County newspaper publisher and his attorney two weeks ago over an Open Records Act request that allegedly contained false information about two Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court judges has released a firestorm of protest from journalism outlets and statements from court officers saying they did the right thing.
Mark Thomason of Blue Ridge, publisher of the Fannin Focus, and his attorney, Russell Stookey of Hiawassee, were arrested two weeks ago after a Pickens County grand jury returned felony indictments against them alleging identity fraud, attempt to commit identity fraud, and making false statements in their effort to obtain banking records of Judges Brenda Weaver and Roger Bradley.
Thomason and Stookey are alleged to have used a checking account number identifying Weaver to produce a “subpoena for the production of evidence” with “intent to unlawfully appropriate resources,” according to the indictment.
District Attorney Alison Sosebee said the charges in the case are “based upon a totality of the circumstances.”
“Mr. Thomason and Mr. Stookey are not being prosecuted for use of the Open Records Act,” she said Tuesday.
“As set forth in the indictment, the charges involve the fraudulent use of the identifying information of an account holder at a bank on a subpoena in a civil case; the service of this subpoena in an attempt to access the financial information of the account holder, who was not a party to the litigation, and without the consent or the authorization of the account holder or notice to the account holder by Mr. Thomason or Mr. Stookey; the attempts to access said account information well after the final hearing date upon which the subpoena was utilized; and a statement of Mr. Thomason contained within an open records request to the Pickens County Board of Commissioners, not the use of the Open Records Act itself.”
Sosebee said although the grand jury returned a true bill on the indictment, Thomason and Stookey “enjoy the presumption of innocence until the fact-finder determines that the state has presented evidence establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – as well as all persons coming before a court in the United States that are charged with a crime.”
Late last week and over the holiday weekend, state newspapers and national news agencies picked up the article, calling the arrests a direct response for Thomason filing an Open Records Act request. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday that Thomason’s “relentless pursuit of public records relating to the local Superior Court has incensed the court’s chief judge, Brenda Weaver, who also chairs the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Weaver took the matter to the district attorney, who obtained the indictments.”
On Wednesday, the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists made a formal complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission against Weaver as several other organizations – including the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Society of Professional Journalists – demanded the charges be dropped.
The case has some history. Last year, Thomason filed suit against Fannin County Superior Court recorder Rhonda Stubblefield, alleging she deleted some conversations during a court session where Bradley and sheriff’s deputies used a racial slur in open court. After Thomason’s case against her was dismissed, Stubblefield sued him for $1.2 million. She later dropped the suit, saying she didn’t think Thomason could pay her if she won.
According to published reports, Stubblefield incurred attorney fees while she was working as a county employee paid out of a discretionary fund judges can use. Thomason alleged that taxpayer money was being used to help a county employee. He sought the bank records of Weaver and Bradley to show what he called “illegal” payments had been made to Stubblefield.
Weaver said Thomason could have gotten the records that are open to the public from clerks in Fannin and Pickens counties. However, after they told him there would be a charge to reproduce the documents, Thomason never showed up to retrieve them.
Thomason submitted a request to Pickens County for the judge’s operating account, written to either Weaver or Bradley by Pickens County, from 2013-15. An email from Faye Harvey, the county’s finance director, offered to gather the information and prepare it for him for $60.90 – $58.50 for labor, $2.40 for copies. Harvey said she asked Thomason to submit his request on a county form and sign it, saying he would pay the cost, but she never heard back from him.
For a complete report on this story, read next week’s edition of The News Observer.